Last week, the Australian Football League (AFL)’s most decorated indigenous player, Adam Goodes, declined an invitation to be inducted into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. It was a protest against the vicious racism to which Goodes was subjected during the final years of his career.
That racism forced Goodes into early retirement at the end of the 2015 season, bringing an end to his club record–breaking 372-game career with the Sydney Swans. “The treatment of Adam in his final years at AFL level drove him from football,” acknowledged AFL commissioner Richard Goyder, who also sits on the Hall of Fame committee. As he continued:
The AFL and our game did not do enough to stand with him at the time, and call it out. The unreserved apology that the game provided him in 2019 was too late, but on behalf of our Commission and the AFL, I apologize unreservedly again for our failures during this period. Failure to call out racism and not standing up for Adam let down all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players, past and present.
But Goodes was not merely a passive victim of bigotry. By rejecting the game’s highest honor, Goodes has once again taken a stand against the systemic racism woven into the fabric of Australian society and the most popular sport in the land, Australian Rules football.
“Australian Football Culture Is a White Culture”
“Australian football culture is a white culture,” said former Collingwood and Melbourne player Heritier Lumumba in Fair Game, a 2017 documentary about his own experiences with racism. Built upon the dispossession and genocide of the oldest culture in the world, Australia has always struggled to create a convincing — let alone inspiring — national mythology. As a result, sport has played an oversized role in Australian nationalism.
Prime minister Alfred Deakin said as much in 1908, observing that AFL football “is Australian in its origin, Australian in its principle, and, I venture to say, essentially of Australian development.” Premised upon British and European culture, Australian nationalism has also excluded and persecuted any meaningful expression of indigenous identity. This is why racism has always dogged Australian football.
Although Joe Johnson was the first indigenous player to debut in the Victorian Football League (VFL) in 1904, most VFL clubs did not have any indigenous players until after World War II. When Wally Lovett debuted for Collingwood in 1982, he became the club’s first indigenous player in its eighty-five years in the VFL. As a result, Collingwood holds the shameful record for being the club that held out the longest against signing an Aboriginal player.
Today, First Nations people are still marginalized within the game, just as they are in Australian society as a whole. As sociologists Chris Hallinan and Stella Coram observed in 1999: “Aboriginal players are concentrated in positions characterized by speed, quickness, anticipation, spontaneity and flair,” rather than leadership and intelligence. As they went on to explain, this indicates “that the over-and-underrepresentation of Aboriginal players in specific positions coincides with racist stereotypes about their ‘innate’ skills.”
Hallinan and Coram are right to note the dearth of First Nations people occupying leadership roles — for example, as coaches, captains, administrators, and commentators. The VFL and AFL have only ever had two indigenous senior coaches: Geelong’s Graham “Polly” Farmer and North Melbourne’s Barry Cable. Only six indigenous players have captained their club, most recently Steven May at the Gold Coast Suns. Commercial radio hired Tony Armstrong, a former Adelaide, Sydney, and Collingwood player in 2019 — he was the first indigenous commentator in the history of the game.
Is it any surprise, then, that some fans have racially abused high-profile indigenous players such as Eddie Betts and Lance Franklin? Or is it surprising that, in February 2021, the Do Better report found the Collingwood Football Club guilty of systemic racism, vindicating former player Hertier Lumumba, who instigated the independent report?
Carlton’s Syd Jackson, who played at Princes Park from 1969 to 1976, recently recalled that “there was heaps of racism when I played.” He remembers the famous 1970 grand final, during which Collingwood fans yelled at him “you black bastard!”, “go back to the desert!”, and “midnight!” In spite of this, Carlton won.
Goodes isn’t the first elite player to have been hounded from the game by racism. A vicious campaign of racial abuse drove out St Kilda’s Robert Muir, regarded by celebrated player and coach Ron Barassi as one of the VFL’s most talented players. As he told the ABC’s Russell Jackson in 2020: “The better I got in sports, the worse the racism got.”
“I’m Black, and I’m Proud to be Black!”
The AFL became a site of anti-racist struggle in the 1990s, partly reflecting the broader movement for land rights and reconciliation. Famously, in 1993, Nicky Winmar took a defiant stand against racism at Victoria Park, pointing his bare skin and declaring: “I’m black, and I’m proud to be black!”
In 1995, the AFL responded. After Collingwood’s Damian Monkhurst racially abused Essendon’s Michael Long, the league implemented “Rule 30,” prohibiting racial and religious vilification.
Since then, the AFL has rebranded itself as a forum for the advancement of First Nations people. The League has devoted entire rounds to celebrate the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the game. Eleven percent of its players are indigenous.
In 2014, the AFL backed the Recognise Campaign that pushed to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian constitution. Tellingly, BHP Billiton — one of Australia’s largest mining companies — was also a major corporate backer of the campaign. For the AFL as for mining corporations, supporting indigenous people is more often a marketing strategy than a genuine commitment.
Consequently, far from encountering solidarity, whenever indigenous players have taken a stand, they have faced a backlash. This is often coded as a rejection of “politicizing” the sport. In 1993, then-Collingwood president Allan McAllister unintentionally cut to the heart of the issue with the following remarks:
As long as they [Aboriginal people] conduct themselves like white people, everyone will admire and respect them . . . As long as they conduct themselves like human beings, they will be alright.
The message is: shut up about racism and play football. In the case of particularly outspoken players like Adam Goodes, the backlash against speaking out is sometimes enough to drive players from the game. As Amy McGuire observed in 2015:
Goodes steps outside of the narrow confines of what is expected of him as an Aboriginal athlete. That is, to keep his advocacy restricted to his team’s chances at winning a premiership, and not use his impressive public platform to stick up for his people.
Heading into the 2013 AFL season, Adam Goodes was in the best form of his career. A dual Brownlow Medalist (awarded to the best football player in the country each year), Goodes had just won his second premiership medal with the Sydney Swans in 2012. However, instead of ending his career on a triumphant note, his final years were marred by racial vilification.
In May 2013, the Sydney Swans played against Collingwood during the AFL’s indigenous round. A fan racially abused Goodes at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, calling him “an ape.” Goodes pointed at the fan. She was a thirteen-year old girl. Security evicted her from the ground.
When interviewed by the Guardian in March 2020, Goodes said the following:
Whenever I had been racially vilified before it had been by peers or drunk men. It’s more shocking when it’s a thirteen-year old child. No thirteen-year-old child is racist.
Goodes accepted the young girl’s apology. Acknowledging that she “reflected the adults around her” who were “saying this in the crowd,” Goodes refused to press charges.
Just days later, Collingwood president Eddie McGuire escalated the racial abuse by suggesting Goodes should be used to promote the musical King Kong. Despite the public backlash, McGuire refused to step down for his comments.
In 2014, Goodes was named Australian of the Year. Despite this, the racial abuse continued unabated. Goodes responded, using his platform to condemn racism. After watching John Pilger’s documentary Utopia, Goodes wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Imagine watching a film that tells the truth about the terrible injustices committed over 225 years against your people, a film that reveals how Europeans, and the governments that have run our country, have raped, killed and stolen from your people for their own benefit. Now imagine how it feels when the people who benefited most from those rapes, those killings and that theft — the people in whose name the oppression was done — turn away when someone seeks to expose it.
Right-wing commentators in the Murdoch press such as Andrew Bolt and Miranda Divine lined up to attack Adam Goodes. 2GB radio’s Alan Jones derided the Sydney player for “always playing the victim.” Meanwhile, the booing at matches intensified.
An Invisible Spear Aimed at Racists
During the 2015 AFL season, the abuse reached new heights. After scoring a goal against Carlton at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Goodes celebrated with a “war-cry” dance in which he threw an invisible spear at opposition fans.
This celebration triggered an outraged frenzy in the football establishment. Eddie McGuire, who was commentating the match, denounced it. “We’ve never seen that before,” said the Collingwood president, “and I don’t think we ever want to see it again, to be perfectly honest.”
Weeks later, Goodes reached a breaking point. “We then played West Coast Eagles and the booing was like a howl.” As he recalled in 2020:
I was an emotional wreck. I didn’t want to go to training that Monday morning. I never had that feeling in eighteen years of playing. I called the coach and he brought around my best mate and I broke down. I was like: “I can’t do this anymore.”
So Goodes took indefinite leave from the game.
The response from football administrators and players was mixed. AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan labelled the booing fans’ behavior as “sheep-like” but refused to describe it as racist. The AFL Players Association took a better stand. They rallied around Goodes, urging fans to reject racism.
Most players responded in similar fashion, demonstrating their solidarity with Goodes on game day by forcing clubs to wear indigenous guernseys. Others, like Western Bulldogs captain Bob Murphy, wore Adam Goodes’s number thirty-seven at the coin toss before the first bounce against Essendon. Fans held up banners that read, “I stand with Adam.”
Goodes returned to the game briefly ahead of the 2015 final series. His last game was a semifinal defeat against North Melbourne. Ultimately, however, his early retirement was not so much a resignation, but a final act of protest. By retiring, he denied the racists their stage. “I don’t want to give people that platform anymore,” he said.
Goodes’s rightly celebrated career and his refusal to be inducted into the Australian Footballers Hall of Fame have made one thing clear. As long as Australia refuses to confront its ongoing legacy of racism towards Aboriginal people, the AFL will be a site of racism — and a site of resistance.